Written and illustrated by Chloé Valerie Harmsworth
The change has taken place. The clocks have moved back by an hour, but still the days are surprisingly short, and the nights deep and long. I realise it’s only November, and that this strange, disconcerting feeling will only intensify over the coming months.
As autumn slips into winter, the atmosphere of the world seems to alter, and so do I. The weather becomes inextricably linked with my emotions – a true example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ we used to analyse in English lessons. Mist seeps into the beginnings and ends of my days, and chilling fingers creep through the cracks in our house, lingering between my layers of clothing. My partner and I swaddle and wrap ourselves in warmth as best as we can (think dodgy electric heating system supplemented by many blankets) and struggle to ignore our instinct to hibernate.
Other animals do not resist this urge: they curl up individually or snuggle together in their nests, setts and roosts – saving energy for milder days when food is less scarce – be they dormice (who sleep most of the year), bats or badgers. How I wish I could join them and be submerged in a constellation of warm, breathing bodies, waiting for the dark and cold to pass. Witnessing a family of badgers doing this at the British Wildlife Centre recently has strengthened this yearning of mine.
Yet we can’t (or won’t) hibernate – but at least we can enjoy simple, peaceful activities such as reading about wildlife, making delicious food and drink from our foraged nuts and berries, and go on invigorating, life-affirming walks. Despite what I’ve said about animals hibernating, there is still a lot to be seen out there. And so much to learn.
This autumn, I again took the opportunity to search for glorious mushrooms that bejewel our local woodlands and forests. I was fortunate to discover a magical crowd of 17 (17!) fly agarics – my favourite of all fungi. Other notable finds were sulphuric dyemaker’s puffballs, juicy beefsteak fungi, merlot-coloured humpback brittlegills and delicate amethyst deceivers nestled in beds of emerald moss.
Visiting Knepp’s rewilded estate in October, we watched red and fallow stags strutting about in style, adorned with magnificent symbols of virility: their awe-inducing and intimidating antlers. (I dream of one day finding a discarded antler to take pride of place amongst my badger and bird skulls!) More than once, a stag slid into view from between the trees, with grunts that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and transported me to a primal, essential world.
From November the days and weeks descend into deep winter, and my attention turns to the trees and birds. In my experience, this is the best season to enjoy both. The leaves have left their branches and no longer disguise the trees’ naked beauty. The rough, rugged bark and silky-silver skins of our arboreal companions are revealed, with their sculptural arms reaching out to the sky in a yearning embrace. I adore their tall, dignified forms, and take the opportunity to muse upon them and become familiar with their shapes through looking, sketching and taking photographs.
Sparkling avian eyes and coloured feathers are also exposed, allowing me further connections with the secret dwellers of the woods, such as the handsome jay. Days before my birthday last winter, I chanced upon a male sparrowhawk lurking within the shadows of birch trees. His sinister orange eye – with its black hole of a pupil – was fixed upon a group of finches. His breast, vibrating with a deadly desire, burned umber in the gloom. For several frozen seconds he was there, before disappearing like a spectre. Exhilarating encounters like this are accompanied by flocks of redwings that gobble up the remaining hedgerow fruits, hypnotic and pulsating waves of starlings, and noisy, chattering corvids that bring energy to even the dullest of days.
This all leads me delicately to the moment of the earth’s reawakening: when green shoots burst with spirit from the solid ground. This period of rest and contemplation allows me to open up like the first snowdrop; my sleepy mind breaking through its icy covering. Soon, carpets of crocuses glinting gold and purple will surround me, promising that spring is on its way. I am ready to restart, refreshed and rejuvenated. To wander down nettle-scented lanes drenched in blushing, petal kisses.
Chloé Valerie Harmsworth is a nature writer, poet, artist and photographer who believes in the powerful, curative beauty of the natural world. She keeps her own nature diary and has written a book on woodlands that is due to be published in 2022. Connect and follow her story at instagram.com/chloevalerienatureart/ and chloevalerienatureart.wordpress.com/about/